On Tuesday, Grantland published a post by Jonah Lehrer that set the interwebs aflutter. It's the kind of piece you've read a million times before: Numbers are ruining sports! It probably wouldn't have garnered as much attention had it not been featured at Bill Simmons' new endeavor. Grantland purports to be something completely new, yet Lehrer's piece was the sports writing equivalent of "Why don't they make the plane out of the black box?"
Lehrer's post ("The Math Problem") is mostly about basketball, but does touch on baseball a bit, so it seems fitting and relevant to discuss it here. Especially since the new Mets front office is so deeply associated with Moneyball, filled with folks who either inspired Billy Beane (Sandy Alderson) or worked for him (Ricciardi, DePodesta), which has inspired a few snide "Moneyball Mets" remarks whenever the lineup logs more than one walk a game. And since many of the arguments Lehrer posits (if they can even be called that) have been leveled against sabermetric types in baseball for decades.
The crux of Lehrer's article, like literally hundreds of similar anti-sabermetric diatribes, is that in concentrating on numbers so much, we've lost the ability to appreciate the intangible. Kids will grow up able to win their fantasy leagues but unable to appreciate the spectacle of sport. It's all based on Lehrer's fear and worry (his words) that sports are being run in such a way these days, that "coaches and fans use the numbers as an excuse to ignore everything else." Is there any specific, concrete evidence to support this thesis? No, which I guess is fitting, considering the piece is essentially opposed to evidence on principle.
The largest examples Lehrer cites are the Dallas Mavericks, who just won an NBA championship despite being statistically inferior to playoff opponents like the Lakers and Heat. The problem is, the Mavs are, by their own admission, one of the more stat-minded teams in the league. Look no further than team owner Mark Cuban, who wrote the foreword to Jonah Keri's The Extra 2% and filled said forward with many parallels between how the Tampa Bay Rays used advanced analyses to their advantage and how Dallas did the same.
The truth is, despite Lehrer's fears, and despite the fact that more front offices are using sabermetric tools than ever, I can't believe that this has trickled down to the way games are managed or played. Managers/coaches remain largely conservative folks, in terms of in-game moves, lineup construction, and so on, because experimenting is not conducive to job stability in any sport. Even when you watch the Oakland A's, who are supposedly managed from up top by Mr. Beane himself, you'd be hard pressed to find any moves or strategies that are decidedly sabermetric.
I believe even less that numbers have somehow prevented fans from appreciating the intangible. Most fans still react to the games they love in irrational ways. Fans don't automatically love the statistically perfect player the most. They've always liked certain players more than others for intangible reasons, and they always will. It's part of the drama of sports: The scrappy guy no one believed in coming through in a big spot. Think of former Met favorites like Joe McEwing or Benny Agbayani, flawed players who fans loved in large part because their respective physiques made them look less like athletes and more like average schmoes. I bet there are still Met fans who like one of these guys better than Mike Piazza, despite the fact that he is a future Hall of Famer and McEwing and Agbayani most assuredly are not.
There's no stat that's been devised that could somehow keep fans from reacting to sports this way. There's not a sabermetrician out there who'd want to devise such a thing. And yet, articles like Lehrer's pitch like some kind of deadly indoctrination tool. They cast advanced stats in the same light as a red-scare piece from the 1950s would talk about Communism, as a dangerously seductive thing, not so much a tool or an ideology as a disease.
If sabermetrics are truly a clear and present danger to how sports are played and enjoyed, there has to be some tangible evidence of their adverse affects. There has to be a team out there who has destroyed their organization by listening to stats too much, or a fanbase that became so obsessed with numbers they stopped watching games.
The simple fact is, there is no such evidence. If anything, there are abundant examples of teams who clung to a completely non-sabermetric way of doing things and endangered their long-term feature. Just look at the Mets, their bloated payroll and their barren farm system. For a good decade, across several GM's regimes, the Mets' approach to winning was to pay for free agents--overpay, usually--trade away prospects, and repeat as needed. That's how they landed in a situation where they suddenly have to decide between keeping David Wright and Jose Reyes. (Well, that and Bernie Madoff.)
Lehrer seems to not care that, if he so chooses, he can simply ignore advanced stats. He can simply watch games on TV or listen on the radio, and for the most part he'll be able to enjoy the action without the intrusion of any stat more complicated than OBP. Meanwhile, those who want sabermetric views of the game can pursue them.
In the absence of any evidence that sabermetrics do real harm to sports, pieces like Lehrer are the sports equivalent of saying my love of Thai food endangers his love of Chinese. You know we all don't have to enjoy the same meal, right?